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Going Beyond Shallow Inspiration When It Comes to Disability

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It’s a familiar scene for many disabled individuals. I was 14 years old and at my eighth grade graduation. I was excited for summer vacation, high school and the graduation awards ceremony. I was graduating at the top of my class and was sure I would get some recognition for my academic achievement. As name after name was called to receive awards in English, mathematics, science, and art, I hoped my name would be next. As we reached the end of the award ceremony it was clear I would not be included, despite being an A student.

Then it happened, the cringe-worthy moment when my name was called, not in recognition for my success despite not having timely access to large print materials, but instead a special award crafted just for being an inspiration. The award was given because despite being visually impaired, I had a good attitude and was a happy person. In that moment, all my academic achievements were publicly washed away. I was being given a participation trophy for showing up and making the faculty feel good. I was confused and disappointed. I had no sense of accomplishment in that “award” and I learned in that moment that the sighted world did not fully see me. They only saw their hallucination of what it must be like to be visually impaired.

Inspiration is difficult terrain to navigate for both the able-bodied and disabled. Many disabled people do not want to be referred to as “inspirational,” while others do not mind depending on context. It might be difficult for able-bodied individuals to imagine being disabled, so it’s natural to feel inspired when a disabled person is thriving. Unfortunately, this inclination can become problematic for disabled and able-bodied people alike. In this article I am going to attempt to make navigating “inspiration” easier, so uncomfortable situations can be avoided.

Before jumping in it is important to note that feeling real inspiration is a great thing. Unfortunately, when we (disabled people) are referred to as being inspirational we are often simply living our daily lives. The inspiration able-bodied people express when they see a disabled person doing just this is what I refer to as “shallow inspiration.” It is shallow because it only sees the physical, intellectual, or emotional limitation and does not take into account the numerous obstacles we must overcome that are far more difficult than the disability itself. It is also shallow because it tends to reflect the poor expectations society has of disabled people. My goal here is not to shame anyone, but to provide a deeper understanding of the problems with “shallow inspiration” and how to avoid falling into it.

Daily Living Is Not Inspirational

Living with a disability means that we have to get creative when it comes to doing some of the things able-bodied people do. It does not mean, however, that being able to function in the world automatically makes us inspirational.

There are two reasons one might label our everyday lives as inspirational. One is that people imagine being in our shoes, for example in my case being legally blind, and they think to themselves something along the lines of “I couldn’t do that if I were blind, I’d be too afraid.” Let me assure you that you are capable of so much more than you realize. Tasks can certainly be challenging, but like us, you would find your way.

The second reason is far more insidious. Some people have such low expectations of disabled people that they are genuinely surprised when we are able to do common daily activities. When a society has incredibly low expectations of an entire group, that group cannot succeed. Society will not engage with that group in ways that create widespread success. For example the unemployment rate of the blind and visually impaired is over 60 percent. This is not because blind employees can’t do the job, but because employers are less inclined to hire them.

I believe the way we change this is by raising expectations of disabled people. Instead of making our ability to wear fashionable clothes or take the subway on our own “inspirational,” assume we are just like you.

I am aware that some people will still be tempted to think the blind lady crossing the street on her own is “inspirational,” and I am in no way the thought police. However, if you do not know me, please don’t stop me during my commute to inform me that I am an inspiration. It’s socially weird, it interrupts my (or any disabled person’s) day, and contributes to the othering of disabled people.

“Inspiration” at the Expense of Disabled People

About a year ago there was an article circulating on social media, a “feel good” story about a blind man being helped in a grocery store. The gentleman in question was going about an ordinary activity, shopping. He had a sighted guide, an employee of the shop who was doing this as a part of his job. One onlooker felt the scene was too “inspirational” to go by undocumented. This was, after all, a poor, powerless, blind man being rescued by the selfless saint. So she took pictures of the blind man and the employee and uploaded them to social media with a story about how wonderful it was that someone was helping the blind man shop.

From there the story went viral and was picked up by a major news site. The frame of the selfless stranger and the incapable blind man was reiterated both in the written story and in the comments. The most frequent comments were around the employee being a hero and an inspiration. It later came out that the blind gentleman had no idea there was a story about him, nor did he know that pictures were taken of him and circulated through social media.

In the onlooker’s rush to post “inspiration porn,” she didn’t stop and wonder whether or not the blind gentleman or the employee wanted to be photographed and used to create a viral post. Both were used to make readers have warm and fuzzy feelings without regard for the people involved. The blind gentleman was nothing more than an ornament for the employee’s selflessness. This violated both individuals’ right to privacy, and perpetuated the idea that blindness makes people exotic others who can not have normal lives.

Inspiration for Commercial Gain

A few months back, a major athletic organization who runs events around the world announced that it was televising a special event. This was an adaptive event specifically for disabled athletes. The headline was “Get Inspired.” Also, a number of us who are disabled and participate in these events were never notified of the opportunity for an adaptive version. It was clear to me that only certain athletes were invited, those they thought would boost the brand. They used those athletes’ disabilities for their commercial gain without making adaptive events available to anyone else. This stunt was strictly marketed to and organized for able-bodied consumers.

This type of exploitation continues to promote inequality. Now not only has society divided itself based on ability and disability, but the able-bodied have divided the disabled into worthy and not. Beware of inspiration that is neatly packaged for mass consumption.

The Problem With Being “Inspirational”

The two categories of “shallow inspiration” listed above are highly problematic. They remove the disabled person from the context in which they live while relieving the able-bodied “inspiration seeker” from any social responsibility, and ensure the locus of control over our bodies and voices remains with able-bodied society.

The Context in Which We Live

When strangers make comments about how inspirational disabled people are for living our lives or share problematic “feel-good” stories about disability, they fail to take into account the real barriers we face in day-to-day life. These barriers aren’t from our disabilities, but from society. The real barriers for a blind woman is not that she can’t see; many of us have been this way from birth and it is not a problem for us. The real barriers she faces are situations like a traffic light that doesn’t change in Central Park because the park authority hasn’t gotten around to it and the cyclists believe they always have the right of way. She must put up with the infantilization that is common at the hands of airline staff. She faces a lack of accessible educational materials in school. Daily she navigates a busy city, never sure just when an unhelpful hand is going to reach out, grab her arm, and pull her off course in an attempt to “help” her.

When a stranger tells her on the street she is an inspiration, they remove her from the context in which she lives her daily life and the challenges she faces. She becomes an inspiration solely on the grounds that she cannot see. To the sighted world, the lack of one sense organ is way more frightening and frustrating than the daily challenges she faces because of societal beliefs, infrastructure, systems of power, and the frequent silencing of the disabled community in discussions of diversity.

Social Responsibility

Inspiration is fun and can give people warm feelings, but almost never leads to action — either in the able person’s life or in society as a whole. When the illusion is damaged because we bring up the hardships we face, there is often disengagement. We are no longer inspirational when we ask our able-bodied communities to take action to help make change. People are complacent and enjoy inspiration that doesn’t require work on their part, which leaves the question: when we are called inspirational, what are we inspiring people to do?

Locus of Control

When disabled people try to open a real discussion about the daily difficulties we face, we are often reframed from being an inspiration to being bitter and ungrateful. Our identities, qualities, abilities and potentials are defined and redefined by able-bodied society.

A few years ago I posted a thread on social media about the wait staff in a restaurant who wouldn’t speak to me and instead asked my friend if he should give me a menu and what I would be eating that night. This is not an uncommon experience for visually impaired people. It is dehumanizing and illustrates just how much education is needed.

The responses to my post were surprising. While I had hoped to receive some support and perhaps start a discussion about some of the hurdles we face, I was instead blasted for being insensitive to how the server must have felt. I was told it must have been really difficult for him not knowing how to handle me, and that I need to have compassion for him. The underlying meaning was that I needed to recognize how difficult it must have been for the server to have to interact with a blind person. When I brought up a real issue, I went from inspirational to insensitive and lacking compassion.

What About the Inspired?

Finally, shallow inspiration is detrimental to the person experiencing it. This is because the able-bodied person typically does nothing with that inspiration. The purpose of inspiration is to motivate one to action, otherwise it is a brief positive feeling that is soon forgotten. If I were not so socially gracious, I would ask every stranger who told me they were inspired, “What am I inspiring you to do? How will you make your life or others better because you saw me sitting in the subway?” If they cannot answer this in a meaningful way, they are not experiencing real inspiration. They are feeling good because they see my disability. They are at best having a moment of awe and at worst, a hit of dopamine due to internal prediction error — they have one view of disability and are witnessing something different. In the long run, it doesn’t improve their life or the world.

When to Be Inspired

Not all inspiration is shallow, and it can be a deeply empowering experience for both the inspired and the disabled person. The appropriate time to express that a disabled person is inspiring is when you see them excelling in an activity most of their able-bodied counterparts do not. This could be when listening to a professional musician, watching an athlete, attending a moving talk, or hearing about a disabled individual earning their doctorate. Those are real moments of inspiration. They are inspiring because the disabled individual excelled despite the social, financial, educational, and lastly physical barriers they face. They succeeded in a world that is not built for them. They are inspirational because they dared to do something the majority of able-bodied people will not do. Be inspired by achievement and not disability alone.

If you know a disabled person excelling at something that would be demanding for the average able-bodied person, share that inspiration. Tell others and focus on ability and achievement as opposed to disability. Every disabled person is different about this, but I do things that are difficult for the average able-bodied person, and I have no problem being called an inspiration for those abilities. It must also be understood through the lens of inequality. I excel despite an uneven playing field, not despite my vision. Inspiration is valuable when it raises awareness and makes the world a better place for the disabled and able-bodied alike.

Don’t settle for just feeling inspired. Take that inspiration and turn it into a positive force in your life and the world. You can do this in little ways, such as finding a bit more about what it’s like to have a specific disability so stereotypes disappear. Take the inspiration and turn it into action such as using it to motivate you to achieve some goal you have in your life.

Getty image by Chameleon’s Eye.

Originally published: December 19, 2018
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